At some point or another, it seems that most British musicians become fascinated and captivated by the music of America’s heartland. U2 documented theirs in Rattle and Hum, and in another new release, Robyn Hitchcock dabbled in heartland music by recording with Gillian Welch. Something about the mystique of penniless troubadours hoping for fame with an old guitar slung on their back, recording in Mississippi or Tennessee, seems to appeal to folks both inside and outside of the Bible Belt. Elvis Costello is no stranger to the American sound having recorded his country album Almost Blue in 1981 and having declared himself King of America in 1986. Costello has also never shied away from experimentation in his musical style, from punk to country, jazz to classical, Elvis has done it all.
The man formerly known as Declan McManus just turned fifty, but you would never guess it from the edge and force that exude from his latest release with the Imposters, the southern rock and blues laden The Delivery Man. Originally intended to be a thematic song cycle about an actually delivery man, Abel, meeting ladies, Vivien, Ivy and Geraldine, on his stops throughout the South, the songs ended up getting either cut or jumbled enough to confuse the theme. The album begins with the heavy-hitter “Button My Lip,” a track which is a great transition from When I Was Cruel to the sound that will come on this new outing. The gang of imposters is back and hasn’t lost a step. Longtime collaborators Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums provide some of the standout musical highlights on The Delivery Man. Nieve’s keyboards on the first track in particular as he goes manic in solos, even playing a schizo version of “America” from West Side Story amidst the madness.
The second song brings the album back from the echoes of former albums to the present blues / country sound that run throughout the record. Each song indicates in either the lyrics or the liner notes whether it is part of the “Delivery Man” song cycle. “Country Darkness,” a beautifully written and performed song including pedal steel, is one that includes the characters of Abel, Geraldine, and Ivy. In the song’s chorus, which bassist Davey Faraghar sings backup, you could swear that it’s an Eagles cover. Unfortunately, having started with two incredible songs, the third song left something to be desired. The highly regarded Lucinda Williams sings “There’s A Story In Your Voice” along with Elvis and the pairing simply didn’t work for me. Elvis sets a tone for the song and Lucinda comes along and nearly mocks it. To me it was almost like Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem. Luckily, Elvis gets back on track with “Either Side of the Same Town” and “Bedlam,” and Lucinda doesn’t appear again.
The latter song, “Bedlam,” is another one that fits with When I Was Cruel. It doesn’t have a connection to any of the central characters, which might be a sign, and Elvis’ vocals in the song are the closest to his early years, a la This Year’s Model, that I’ve heard in a while. Then comes the title track, a song which, if the theme still existed as a whole, would have started the album, introducing feelings, premises, and characters. “Monkey to Man” is due to be the first single off of the album and hearkens back to some of his eighties songs including some of those off of Spike. It’s not as poppy, but there’s something about it that feels dated. Later in the album, Emmylou Harris guests on three songs, “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” “Heart Shaped Bruise” and “The Scarlet Tide,” the song he wrote for the film Cold Mountain. Ms. Harris is a much better complement to Elvis’ vocal style than Lucinda Williams and has created some of the most memorable country-esque Elvis songs on the album.
I really like The Delivery Man, that should be clear. But rather than release two albums on the same day, this one and Il Sogno, his next classical work, he really should have recorded a few more songs and released three albums. The Delivery Man probably would have been much better and easier to appreciate had it been laid out as he had originally envisioned, as a concept album with each song contributing to an overarching story, somewhat like David Bowie’s Outside or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, though not as overblown. The other rock album should have included songs like “Button My Lip” (even though it refers to Abel), “Bedlam” and “Needle Time,” all of which are on a par with his magnificent last album, When I Was Cruel. (For all of you trainspotters, no, I’m not including North or Cruel Smile). And while “The Scarlet Tide” is a great song and I enjoyed hearing a new version of it, it didn’t really fit on this album.
As it is though, The Delivery Man is more than a worthy effort. Aside from a few flaws on the album as a whole, Costello’s songwriting has not declined with age. He can still rock on one song and then be tender and endearing on the next. While it may not be one of Elvis’ best, it is one of the `betters’. Also worthy of note is the production on the album. Elvis co-produced the effort with Dennis Herring at his Sweet Tea Studio in Oxford, Mississippi. After this album and Dennis Herring’s other production triumph this year, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the producer and studio are sure to be hot commodities in the future.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters- When I Was Cruel
The Eagles- One of These Nights
Willie Nelson- Red Headed Stranger